Sep 3, 2004 1:08pm
Dissent and Divison: 1965-1973
AT THE 1968 Socialist Party National Convention, the Shachtman-Harrington Caucus held a clear majority, though a slim one, and voted down resolutions demanding American withdrawal from Vietnam and urging independent political action. They passed a resolution endorsing Hubert Humphrey -- a resolution which Norman Thomas, who had less than six months to live, opposed as best he could from his hospital bed, pleading in vain with the membership to reject it. They elected a clear majority of the Party's National Committee, and installed their own supporters as National Secretary and Editor of the Party paper.
During the Convention itself, knowing
Frank P. Ziedler
themselves defeated, the left wing organized itself as a caucus and proceeded to hire a secretary, start a newspaper, and make plans to hold conferences. At its first conference, it took the name Debs Caucus, and continued to function under that name for nearly five years. The Debs Caucus had a valid claim to recognition as a voice of Socialism, for it included the former National Chairman, Darlington Hoopes, the Socialist ex-Mayor of Milwaukee, Frank Zeidler, and many of the state and local SP organizations, including Wisconsin, Illinois, California, and locals in Philadelphia, Washington DC, and New York City.
At the riotous Democratic National Convention in Chicago in 1968, Realignment Socialists were present as delegates, and Bayard Rustin, having lost his old pacifist and radical orientation, effectively served as a Black floor manager for Humphrey. At the same time, many Debs Caucus members were in the streets with the demonstrators.
By 1970, with Michael Harrington as National Chairman, under Max Shachtman's leadership, the Socialist Party was showing a growing tendency toward a Stalinist "democratic centralism" in practice. The Party newspaper was effectively closed to all but official views, and the members of the Debs Caucus were treated as non-persons. While Harrington was known to personally disapprove of the war in Vietnam, he could not bring himself to support the demand -- now virtually unanimous on the American left -- for unconditional immediate withdrawal of U.S. forces. Since this meant the Socialist Party was completely isolated from the anti-war movement, as well as from the so-called "New Left," it was virtually the only left party in the country that did not experience a major upsurge in membership during this period.
Nevertheless, Harrington maintained contacts with the liberal wing of the peace movement (such as SANE), and he and his personal followers formed yet a third caucus, the Coalition Caucus, to pursue the Realignment strategy within the more liberal sectors of the Democratic Party and the labor leadership. In March 1972, a Unity Convention was held to finalize the merger of the Socialist Party with the Democratic Socialist Federation. The tightly disciplined Unity Caucus, as the Shachtmanite wing now styled themselves, were by now suspicious of Harrington, and succeeded in pushing through the Convention a constitutional amendment providing for a "troika" in the Chairmanship. The "troika" was made up of Harrington, Charles Zimmerman of the DSF, and the aging former civil rights leader Bayard Rustin. A resolution opposing the Vietnam war, which was supported by six Party Locals and by both the Debs Caucus and the Coalition Caucus, failed.
In the 1972 Presidential election the division in the Socialist Party came to a head. In the Democratic primaries, the Shachtmanites supported Henry Jackson, a hawk and a strong supporter of Israel (the latter having become a litmus test for the Shachtmanites). During the campaign itself, they took a neutral position between McGovern and Nixon, following the lead of the AFL-CIO. Harrington and his Coalition Caucus supported McGovern throughout. Most of the Debs Caucus members supported Benjamin Spock, candidate of the People's Party (Frank Zeidler was Spock's "shadow cabinet" Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare).
At the end of 1972, the Socialist Party, now completely under control of the right wing, changed its name to Social Democrats USA. This lit the fuse for the disaffiliation of many of the states and locals within the Debs Caucus, and for many resignations. Early in 1973, the Socialist Party of Wisconsin, with the support of the California and Illinois Parties, called a "National Convention of the Socialist Party," to be held Memorial Day weekend in Milwaukee The Debs Caucus had recently organized a Union for Democratic Socialism, as an "umbrella" organization of both members and non-members of the Socialist Party, and the UDS now made plans for a major conference on "The Future of Democratic Socialism in America" to be held at the same time. The resulting body voted to reconstitute the Socialist Party USA.
Michael Harrington resigned from SDUSA at this time, but he took no part in the reconstituted SPUSA. In October 1973, he and his followers founded the Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee, now the Democratic Socialists of America (after merging with the New American Movement in 1982). They have generally functioned as a socialist faction within the liberal wings of the Democratic Party and of the leadership of the AFL-CIO; some of their members have won office running as Democrats.